10 tips for productive online conversations

September 30, 2007

I’ve been trying to have online conversations for a while now, in different spheres of my life, and here are my top 10 tips for running online forums and groups.  There may be more along later, but these are the ones that occur to me first.

1. Aim for an intimate public conversation

Conversational style is a hard thing to get right.  Personally, I feel that online discussion should be fairly close to natural conversation.  In other words, as an online facilitator (just as offline), you’ll get the best out of other people by being relaxed, genuine and curious.    My best examples of interviewers who do this brilliantly come from Radio 1: just listen to daytime DJs like Edith Bowman or Jo Whiley talk to their audience.  

Who does it badly? News interviewers, especially from the Today programme on Radio 4, manage to be narrow, aggressive and hectoring.  Double glazing salesmen and telephone interviewers, they all want to lead you in a direction that you’re not keen to go…

2. Get the relevant background from people

I often see people acting as if the internet was a scarce resource.  The whole point of having an online forum, say, as opposed to a questionnaire, is so that you can have a broadband conversation, not a narrowband, bounded conversation of the sort that resembles a questionnaire.  Anyway: find out what you need to know about your audience’s lives, work, habits, attitudes…it doesn’t need to be general, it can be very, very specific, but get that background.  It will serve you very well later.  You don’t ask, you won’t get.

3. Ask for stories

Where you can, ask for a whole story, not just the simple answer to a simple question.  Ask your audience to tell you something: their image of Brand X, their first experience of getting a bank account, their favourite night out…whatever.  You may need to give your own examples to get people going, but stories are rich.

4. If you have lots of questions, bundle them into conversations

I see people trying to string out the separate parts of their conversations like beads on a wire.  So, in discussing whether people would like to keep an elephant as a pet, the discussion gets split into attitudes to elephants, ease of housetraining elephants, cost of elephants, propensity to buy an elephant, when quite frankly it would save quite a lot of trouble to simply ask what people think about having an elephant as a pet.   And then follow up with some good questions, to make doubly sure that it is the elephant volume and cost of food that is really turning everyone off, and not the elephant poo.

However, you can quite cheerfully talk about elephants as pets, and then, say, about the religion symbolism of elephants.  Separate conversations.

5. Build trust

Trust is built in various ways.  It’s important to be open, to use everyday language rather than marketing language. If you can be very open about your agenda, then do so.  Share your own attitudes and opinions, if you can.

Trust also builds over time.  In planning conversations, make sure you move from simple and unthreatening questions about habits and experience, to more personal or more demanding ones.  And make sure you listen and respond.   You can’t just go for the jugular – people have to feel comfortable about the conversation or they won’t play.

6. Ask about feelings

One of the oddest difficulties I see is that people who are trained in very rational ways of thinking can struggle with the personal and emotional dimensions of an issue.   So, for example, in discussing the car I drive, a rationally-minded questioner would find out that it has many positive attributes, such as its size, acceleration and build quality.  A better researcher might also dig out the fact that I find it very dull.  (A therapist would uncover the complex reasons why I drive a Honda rather than an Audi, but we’ll leave it there).  

Asking about feelings can be as simple as saying, ‘So how do you feel about X?’   People will tell you.

7. Use projective approaches to ask tricky questions

Unless you want to be a salesman, asking ‘Would you buy this? How much would you pay?’ sounds over-personal and pushy.  In the online environment, it can feel a bit like spam.  You still can ask it, just in a more roundabout way: ‘Do you think other teachers/accountants/forklift truck drivers will be interested in this?  How much do you think they’ll be willing to pay?’

But, I hear you cry, you haven’t asked about them.  *pats you on the head*  Really, 9 times out of 10, they will assume that Other People feel exactly like them.  They project, in other words.  You can always check.  ‘How do you yourself feel?’  It will mostly be the same thing.

8. Use natural language

I used to share an office with a woman who worked in advertising, and on Mondays I’d ask her how the weekend went, and she’d typically say, ‘Well, I went out on Friday and had 5 premium lagers.’  

This is not normal language.  People buy Twixes, not ‘in-hand countlines’.  So, examine your language.  Is it normal? Would your mum know what you’re on about? (assuming she doesn’t work in marketing).  If not, drop the jargon.

9. Allow negative as well as positive opinions

People can be terribly polite online, up until the point where they become incredibly, amazingly, breathtakingly rude.  If your group is sponsored in some way and you want honesty, you have to strive for that all the way through, in authentic questions and everyday language.   Otherwise, you’ll get very bland views.

10.  Arrange time for closure and feedback

And finally: as with real-world discussions, people don’t like to be thrown into the street the minute the conversation is over, they like time to chat, swap opinions and maybe business cards, and generally talk about their experience.  Make sure you use this time, either to follow up and get some feedback, or simply to let people  comment about things that are not yet covered.

 Phew.  Those are my first 10.  There are lots more.  In the meantime, listen to great radio and TV interviewers, and work out what they do.  The kinds of questions they ask ask their subjects or their audiences will serve you well.

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